Thoughts on Sunday 

I awoke late at night to a crescendo of crickets and a surge of fever. Mussed bedding trapped my limbs. Pain entangled my dreams. I heard a whimper and wondered who was crying. A shadowed presence appeared at my bedside, palmed hair from my forehead, freed my legs from sodden sheets, soothed until I slept.

My mother’s touch that fevered night formed my earliest memory. Later, when I was thirteen, Mom shaped the direction of my life.

We were the featured speakers during a Dear to My Heart night for mothers and daughters of our church. I don’t remember what I said in my tribute to Mom, but I do remember fussing endlessly with my bangs, gluing them in place with Brylcreem and hair spray, more concerned with my appearance than my words.

But I have a hand-written copy of Mom’s speech. She began with startling news: “Janet, from the moment I first held your warm, perfect body in my arms and gloated over your dark, curly ducktails — I actually had a baby with hair! — you’ve been a source of joy and delight to the entire family.”

The entire family? Even Bob?? Did they vote?

Later, another surprise: “I enjoy leaving your younger sister and brothers in your care. Even if the dishes are sketchily done and the furniture pushed awry, I know the little ones will be well cared for and also have fun with the games and stories you create for them. You’d be a good teacher, Janet.”

With those words, she directed me toward my future.

Mom made my heart soar that night; then, driving home, she returned me to reality. “Janet, we have to do something about those shaggy bangs stuck to your nose. When we get home, I’m cutting them. You look like a greasy Shetland pony.” Amused at the accuracy of her description, she giggled, and, despite myself, I chuckled with her.

When Mom was seventy-seven, I spent a week with her in Wyoming. Most of the time we talked. But other times I sat with a book in my lap and watched her sleep in a recliner; her hands unusually idle in the middle of the day. Soft window light bathed her lined face, and her breath seemed slow and faint.

Not wanting to bother her children, she admitted to heart problems, but told us her medicine and pacemaker helped. As I sat near her, watching her drift in and out of sleep, I refused to recognize the truth.

She died seven months later. With time, I recovered from the emotional turmoil of her death, funeral and burial — a poignant week I walked through with my father and siblings, united by our grief and love.

Then began the long-term ache of her absence.

Over a year later, in Carson City, Nevada, I absentmindedly drove a street of golden leaves let fall by tired trees. My neck tight with stress, I worried personal choices, professional puzzles, a life littered with busyness. Then I saw a woman who reminded me of myself: face beginning to age, flowing skirt and heels working-woman high. Her head inclined, she walked slowly toward a nursing home, tenderly holding the frail arm of a stooped, white-haired woman. Their smiles were identical.

As I watched, they paused and commented above a bed of purple asters. Without warning, my heart collapsed like a butterfly caught in a net, and I mourned: I never walked my mother through her decline; I lived far away, thought I’d have time; others were there. And she died so quickly.

I grieved that I hadn’t taken the time for more memory-making moments with her.

Sunday, I experienced the same regret.

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The Important Things

Happy Mother's day card with colorful tulips

I remember coming home from church on Mothers’ Day, looking forward to dinner and Mom’s surprise when she opened her presents — a cookie sheet, a three-pack of Dentyne chewing gum, and a boxed set of lace-trimmed handkerchiefs — gifts my siblings and I had purchased despite Mom’s claim that all she wanted was a day without fighting, screaming, tattling, or crying.

As Dad maneuvered the car along our potholed lane, I admired Mom’s bouquet: tissue-paper flowers we’d made in Sunday school, sprayed with Lily of the Valley perfume, and attached to pipe-cleaner stems. During general services, after selected classmates expressed appreciation for their mothers, the rest of us distributed the scented blossoms. “Your flowers are pretty, Mom. Hard to make, too. Did you like the speeches?”

“I did, but I hope if one of you is asked to speak on Mothers’ Day, you’ll mention things you appreciate other than the way I cook your meals, clean the house, and do your laundry. Surely there are things mothers do for their children more important than maid service.”

Unfortunately, I was never selected as a Mothers’ Day speaker and so never told Mom how grateful I am for the more important things she did for me.

My mother shaped me: She gave me her generous lips, sparse eyelashes, enjoyment of school, and belief that a day without dessert was a sad day indeed. Both of us could carry a tune, though no one in our songbird family expressed interest in hearing us do so. Public speaking, teaching, and napping came naturally to us, but a cheerful attitude before breakfast did not.

More importantly, Mom noticed and appreciated the detailed world around her. One of my earliest memories is of her teaching me to be in the moment: to swish my fingers through the cool pond where we gathered watercress, sniff the plant’s pungent aroma, and then sample a peppery leaf.

When we moved to Lander, Wyoming, I heard her marvel at the tilted red cliffs, rushing river, and towering pines of our new home and so paid closer attention than I would have if left to my self-centered teenage ways.

She once showed me a spoon she selected when she and her siblings were choosing keepsakes after their mother died. “Of all the things I chose, I treasure this the most,” she said, holding out a large silver spoon for my examination. “This was your grandmother’s stirring spoon for as long as I can remember. See how the curved edge on one side is worn flat from constant use? When I hold this spoon, it’s like I’m connected to her.”

My mother also taught me empathy. My sister and I both fled to her at different times when marriages we thought were forever crumbled. We arrived wounded, angry, frightened, and left with a sense of peace and resolution. Neither of us can remember Mom’s words, but we remember the gifts she gave us: our favorite foods, her undivided attention when we wanted to talk, and her tears when we cried.

Though my mother didn’t speak the words “I love you” easily, I never questioned her love for me. My siblings and I learned from her, enjoyed her, and appreciated her. Her home was where our hearts were.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You did the important things.

A Tale of Two Floors 

IMG_0734

My childhood home from a painting by Lois Hall Black, my aunt

My mom raised seven children in a house built by her pioneer ancestors on the shores of Utah Lake. My parents worked hard to make the old house as up-to-date and comfortable as they could within a limited budget. Two floors in this work-in-progress home illustrate my mother’s character.

The living room had the most welcoming floor in the house, thanks to Mom’s industriousness and ingenuity. When she decided to beautify this central room with a rug, she searched thrift stores for items made of sturdy fabric and accumulated family clothing no longer deemed worthy of hand-me-down status.

From these cast-offs, she cut narrow lengths of fabric to sew together and braid into fat plaits of multi-colored fabric. Next, using a curved needle and twine, she sewed these thick braids into an oval rug where one color faded into another in perfect harmony. It was a grand, attention-grabbing rug, fifteen-feet long and nine-feet wide, the only carpet we ever had.

We wrestled, played Parcheesi, and spilled popcorn on this work of art; Mom’s projects were intended for use rather than protected with rules or saved for special occasions. We smiled as though we helped create the rug when visitors praised its magnificence — but fought viciously over whose turn it was to vacuum our source of pride.

The floor in the remodeled kitchen didn’t have the same allure.

Between working swing shifts at Ironton Steel and farming, Dad accomplished a kitchen remodel with minimal missteps and profanity — until he and mom covered the floor with asphalt tile.

When they finished, the confetti-patterned floor looked grand. Then we walked on it. With each step, the black adhesive Mom and Dad applied too liberally as bonding material oozed between the squares, belching and befouling the new surface. It glopped here and there and dried in swirling, 3-d patterns, intriguing to children but a disappointment to Mom. She had wanted an attractive, easy-to-clean floor and instead walked on the creature from the black lagoon.

Unhappy as Mom was, however, she brooked no nonsense from her children about either the unsightly floor or the effort involved in fixing it.

It became my job to use SOS Pads to scrub the tarry protrusions until they gradually disappeared, a slow, tedious battle. The scope of work exceeded normal chores, so I was given a dime for each hour I toiled. I thought the pay generous because candy bars only cost a nickel; but I still whined.

One morning, scrubbing and complaining, I muttered, “Why couldn’t Dad have done it right in the first place so I wouldn’t have to do this yucky job.”

Mom usually ignored her children’s petty grumblings, but not this time. With ice in her voice and fire in her eyes, she responded: “Janet, you should give thanks every day for a father with the strength and determination to work a full-time, exhausting job and a farm. And then, when he has a few hours off, he remodels this house for his family. I did the tile with him. We made a mistake. You sound like a selfish, unappreciative person this morning, and I’m not sure I like you.”

My mother molded me and filled our home with beauty: I both liked and loved her.

Happy Mother’s Day.

 

 

A Memory for Mother’s Day

Unknown-2Every year as Mothers’ Day approaches, I feel the absence of mine, though I’m seventy-one and she died in 1992. Yesterday, preparing a sandwich, I thought about her homemade bread.

Mom baked eight loaves of bread at a time, as often as needed, for her ever-hungry husband and seven children. We youngsters hoped for white bread, but our parents favored whole wheat. Dad said the whole grain would put hair on our chests—a questionable sales pitch to use with his daughters.

Baking day highlighted our week. When we came home from school to a loaf of freshly baked bread, churned butter, and homemade strawberry jam, we behaved, as our mother once remarked, like young pigs at a trough: squeals of excitement, jostling for position, and dedication to our task.

Sometimes Mom took fistfuls of the rising dough, patted them flat, and dropped them into hot grease in her cast-iron skillet to fry to a golden brown. We called them scones and would have sold our birthright for them.

Other times, she used some of the dough to make cinnamon rolls with lots of raisins. We thought our cousins from Provo, who wrinkled their noses and removed the raisins, were a bit deranged. My younger sister Barbara preferred her cinnamon rolls unbaked, or, in her words, raw. But she liked the raisins, so we forgave her.

If out of bread and short of time, Mom made baking powder biscuits, which we also devoured. Whenever I invited my high school boyfriend to eat with us, he’d ask, “Is your mom making biscuits?” as though they were the only attraction.

Strangely enough, my siblings and I sometimes had trouble eating these same biscuits. On occasion, if we were out of milk or the cow was dry, Mom would substitute bottled tomatoes for the liquid in the recipe. This substitution turned the biscuits a sickly pink, marbled with darker streaks of red tomato.

Chewing on them, I felt vaguely cannibalistic.

When we moved from Lake Shore to Spanish Fork, Blaine watched while Dad took apart the round oak kitchen table to load in the truck. Underneath, a hidden ledge circled the pedestal that supported the top. Blaine claims that when Dad detached the top from the pedestal, twenty-two petrified tomato-laced biscuits fell to the floor, some partially eaten.

Myrl Hall Bray, my mother

Myrl Hall Bray

Recently, walking through my neighborhood in Craig, I smelled baking bread and instantly became a child again, standing in a patch of kitchen sunlight with hands freshly washed, allowed to punch my fists into a huge batch of risen bread dough, enjoying the smooth stickiness and burping bubbles of its collapse. I laughed, and Mom smiled over at me from the sink.

She was always there. Though she lives in my memories, I miss her every day.

Have any thoughts on Mother’s Day?
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